Mariam Abacha: A Terrorist by Any Other Name

Abstract: Decade-old "Nigerian Letter" scam could symbolize the problems associated with U.S. homeland security and terrorism protection.

Analysis: Got another email from Mariam Abacha the other day.

It was about the 15th one in the past month. But there were many more before that. You've probably heard from her, too, though it's likely you received her email via the Internet Service Provider that serves your personal computer (PC) at home. Employers usually have ways to seal off employees' office machines from such messages--with emphasis on the "usually."

In any case, Ms. Abacha's emails--unsolicited, of course--join literally scores of other, far too similar commercial email campaigns being carried out, or at least signed, by folks with names like Kayode Adeyemi, Isa Mustapha, and Oliver Kavila. There's a ridiculously large list of others.

They're all participants in the infamous "Nigerian Letter" scam--perhaps less well known as the "419 scam." The names change, but the scheme is still about the same:

You, the fax or email recipient, are offered an opportunity to "save" a country and/or a deposed royal family, or to "gain a profit of millions" of dollars, by allowing them or their agents to use your bank account to transfer big money into it. Problem is, if they manage to get your bank account number, they'll use sophisticated means to raid it, and your available cash is toast.

Most of these emailed supplications originate from, or are traceable back to Nigeria (in fact, the "419" refers to Nigeria's criminal statute for fraud). But some stem from other West African nations like Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast (Cote D'Ivore), and so on. A few come, ostensibly, from Malaysia, Afghanistan, and even Slavic provinces like Kosovo, among other politically torn areas.

While it boggles the mind to think that such transparent rip-off attempts could stimulate the greed and avarice gland of even the most materialistic among PC users, they do in fact meet with success. An outfit called The 419 Coalition, for instance (, which is dedicated to informing the general public about the scam, says that as of 1996, it already had cheated greedy "marks"--or simply folks who genuinely want to help--out of some $5 billion around the world. It's a very old scam, since hardcopy letters first started making the rounds back in the 1980s. That it apparently thrives in its fax and email version today no doubt has swelled the Harrisonburg, VA coalition's estimated worldwide total considerably.

Through time immemorial, scams have always worked, at least on some of us. With every new generation come those who tend to trust naively in most things, at least until experience reveals that trust must be earned. But until then, they're vulnerable. There are others who trust equally that life offers many opportunities through which something can be had for nothing. They're always vulnerable. Meanwhile, members of earlier generations are a decade older, and some return to their naïve trust--even in appeals for help over the internet--as part of a decent longing to "contribute" something as their days become numbered. Con men and women and other cheaters count on such moral leanings (the adage about a "sucker" in every crowd, unfortunately, comes to mind).

But what does all this have to do with oil and gas exploration and production (E&P), the usual topic addressed in this column? Not much, really, except to point out that several years ago the Nigerian government, with the help of the U.S. Secret Service, arrested hundreds of people in a tent city outside Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria, which is Africa's largest country. The installation was set up exclusively to fax and email various types of 419 solicitations around the world. But since most of those arrested were released almost immediately, there is the assumption in some circles that the scammers had influence at high levels.

And, of course, Nigeria--along with a number of other West African nations--currently is a major oil and gas E&P theater, and an important exporter of crude oil to the U.S. market.

But what this DOES have to do with, however, is homeland security (HLS) and terrorists. In their own way, the Nigerian letter scams could be a form of terrorism. They are common on Internet domains around the world, and the letters are very often "opened." That such messages could contain hidden computer viruses is a distinct possibility. Anyone who contracted a virus on his or her home PC via such email would certainly feel "terrorized." But if such viruses entered strategic government or industrial computer networks via such commercial email--despite firewalls and other filtering programs--the result could be far more disastrous.

At its broadest, HLS undoubtedly is the biggest and most expensive nationwide initiative ever attempted in the U.S.A. Hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of man-hours are being spent attempting to make this nation as secure from terrorism of all kinds as possible. So-called "cyber-terrorism" is just one area in which federal, state, local, and corporate HMS workers are now burning very costly midnight oil. And for obvious reasons, travel security, particularly commercial airline and air cargo transport, also is receiving a huge share of both dollars and attention, and rightly so.

But other U.S. industries need enhanced security. To varying degrees, many are doing so themselves; some are still organizing industry-wide initiatives, while still others await government directives before plunging ahead.

Protecting the petroleum industry from terrorism, however, both in this country and abroad, appears to be in somewhat of a flux. Like several other businesses, the oil and gas industry is lagging when it comes to being ready to enhance protection against terrorist acts.

At home, oil and gas drilling and production facilities, pipelines, refineries, and petrochemical plants have always maintained some degree of protection against unauthorized access by outsiders. Until September 11, 2001, however, this had more to do with public safety and liability protection. When the threat of actual murderous and destructive acts became all too real, the industry was able to increase security a bit--in the form of more "guards" and tighter fences--at many facilities in the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile, only weeks after Congress officially appointed its top administrators following more than a year of delays, President Bush's U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) is finally led, funded, and getting into action. Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, as acting Secretary, did much to bring the department's principles of sharing responsibility and partnership with Congress, state and local governments, the private sector, and the American people. Now, Ridge and his staff have a huge job ahead, combining the efforts of a number of federal entities placed under the department's aegis in the most significant transformation of the U.S. government in over a half-century.

Much of the DHS's oversight will involve those activities that make up the U.S. petroleum industry, as well as those areas in which seaborne commerce is used to move domestically produced oil, gas, and petroleum products, as well as imports, through the nation's energy system.

During the next several months, Oil & Gas Advisory will examine a number of crucial petroleum industry segments in terms of protection from physical acts of terrorism. The first installment, to appear in this space soon, will deal with the industry's offshore E&P segment. Later columns will address seaborne transportation and strategic ports; domestic waterborne traffic; pipelines, both offshore and onshore; refining and petrochemicals facilities; and others.

Associate Editor: Robin Beckwith